rejuvenated John Higgins is hoping he can fly under the radar and turn back the years at the Betfred World Championship.
That the four-time world champion is a staggering 28-1 to taste success at the Crucible once more probably says much about his recent struggles.
Higgins was banned from snooker for six months despite being cleared of match-fixing allegations in 2010, and after returning to the sport and winning the UK and world titles the following year, he has suffered a fall from grace in recent years.
The former world No 1 – only Ronnie O’Sullivan, Steve Davis, Ray Reardon and Stephen Hendry have won more world titles in the modern era than the 39-year-old Scotsman – has struggled with consistency and confidence.
Since beating Judd Trump 18-15 in the 2011 final, Higgins has won just once in his last three visits to the Crucible.
But after ending a long wait for a ranking title, when he won the Welsh Open earlier this year, he can finally look forward with renewed optimism.
“I’m going to the Crucible in a better frame of mind this year than I have in the last few years,” said Higgins. “I’m feeling confident about my game.
“Mentally I feel in a lot better place than I have been. I’m hitting the ball well and playing with confidence.
“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I felt something click at the Masters when I played Mark Allen.
“I played really well in that match and still lost, but I felt good about the way I played and felt as if I’d turned the corner,” said Higgins who, despite losing 6-4, knocked in three centuries and a 96.
“At the end of the day you never stop believing in your game, but winning matches gives you that confidence you need to win titles.
“And it’s not just about winning titles. Winning little frames when your behind with decent clearances and making breaks under pressure helps as well.
“Winning matches helps, and playing good snooker, even though you might not win sometimes, gives you that extra little bit of confidence.
“And confidence is important in sport; you’ve got to be mentally right and be able to produce consistently.
“Winning the Welsh Open this season was great for me. It had been a while since I’d won a big tournament, so to win the title was a great feeling.
“I’ve worked hard on my game and that was the reward for the hard work I’d put in,” said Higgins, who has slipped down to 13th in the world rankings.
“As you get older the mental side of the game gets a lot harder. The talent is always there – you only have to look at players like Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis, they’ve got it. But it’s about the concentration element and being able to maintain that for a long period of time.
“You can see from Ronnie O’Sullivan’s results that working with [doctor] Steve Peters, on the mental side of his game has really helped.
“He’s won a lot of tournaments since he’s been working with him. He’s got the talent, we all know that, but if you’re strong and focused mentally that helps a lot,” added the Scot, who has just signed a lucrative sponsorship deal for next season with Forty clothing, owned by his brother-in-law Gordon Miller.
Asked to pick a winner, Higgins cannot see beyond the game’s elite, despite three tough qualifying rounds meaning those outside the world’s top 15 are all match-hardened. Of course, the three-time UK champion would love to equal O’Sullivan’s haul of five world titles.
Asked about his 28-1 pre-tournament odds, Higgins replied: “Odds have never bothered me.
“Things never happen the way you think they will, I’m just glad to be back playing well and I’m going to the Crucible in a good frame of mind.
“I’ve won four world titles, so if I didn’t win another one, well then I can’t complain.
“If you’d have said you’d win four world titles at the start of your career then I’d have probably bitten your hand off.
“But of course I want to win another one. It would be really special to win a fifth title and go level with Ronnie and go higher in that list of multiple winners. People are saying it’s a wide field because there’s a lot of top players who will fancy their chances, but to be honest there’s very little new winners of the title.
“It is a wide open field, but you do usually see the same names lifting the trophy.
“There’s a lot of talented players who have come through the qualifiers, so I’d say you’ll probably see more seeds lose this year.
“But then players like Graeme Dott have the experience on the big stage, so that should definitely help him.
“You’ve always got to look at Ronnie as one of the favourites. On his day we all know what he’s capable of, but Judd Trump beat him in the Grand Prix final and I think that will be a big thing for him.
“Beating Ronnie in a long frame match will have done a lot for his confidence, so the next time he plays him he’ll know he can beat him again over that distance.
“That win and experience could prove invaluable if they draw each other in the latter stages of the tournament.
“Judd’s one of the players coming in confident as well, that’s what makes the Crucible so exciting,” added Higgins, who faces world No 17 Robert Milkins today in his first-round match.
Defending champion Selby opens up this morning against debutant Kurt Maflin, while there is an all-Scottish first-round meeting between world No 15 Stephen Maguire and rising star Anthony McGill.